Little more than a year ago, Yale rose to meet — even top — the financial aid standards set by Harvard the previous year. At that time, the News called on Yale not only to follow its peer institutions in terms of generosity, but to lead them. Since then, the Undergraduate Organizing Committee in particular has continuously pressured the administration to take such a lead. It has not.
Now, Yale has more catching up to do. On Thursday, Harvard’s latest jump ahead — which eliminated contributions from families earning less than $60,000 per year and slashed those from families earning between $60,000 and $80,000 — extended aid to a projected additional 25 percent of its student body. Granted, there remains at least one major problem with this picture: The median U.S. household income was last measured at $54,061 two years ago. Notwithstanding low-income recruiting measures such as Yale’s laudable Student Ambassadors Program, the relative affluence of students at both schools reflect recruiting problems that extend beyond the parental and summer work contributions.
That said, however, Harvard’s move made a powerful statement to high school students and their parents nationwide. At Yale, the typical administrative response to pleas for further aid expansion has been recriminations against the University’s tight budget, but this becomes increasingly difficult to swallow in a year when Yale investment gurus netted the endowment $2.5 billion, spending cap or no spending cap. While it has been argued that Harvard’s substantially larger endowment offers its operating budget more leeway, the school is not without its own financial problems, facing a Faculty of Arts and Sciences budget shortfall reportedly expected to top $100 million by 2010. Harvard’s financial aid expansion was not some bone thrown by a school resting on its laurels — it was a concerted effort to ease the restrictions imposed on applicants by the crippling debt that an Ivy League education promises the average American family.
More fundamentally, Harvard’s new aid policies will increase its financial aid budget by a total of $2.4 million. Even for Yale’s smaller operating budget — which includes $59 million earmarked for next year’s financial aid, compared to Harvard’s $92.4 million — this does not represent anything resembling an insurmountable cost. Neither would reducing or even eliminating student self-help contributions. Yale can do better.
In the wake of the debacle surrounding the ousting of Harvard President Lawrence Summers, Yale President Richard Levin has undoubtedly been thinking more frequently about his own legacy. The golden parachute waiting for Levin around the time of the next union contract renegotiations offers a terrific deal for Yale’s president, but we believe Levin would like to be remembered for helping the finances of the student body as much as its spiraling tuition payments have helped him and the University.
Yale need not and should not be outpaced in its quest to widen the field of students who can enjoy the benefits of an Ivy League education. The administration should work quickly at least to match Harvard’s offer, and then to ensure that they do not have to use budget constraints as an excuse again.